The New Year splashes in, the gusting rain disappointing skiers, skaters and snowman makers. It rains and rains through the night and finally clears in the morning to a sparkling blue sky. The first birds of the year here at the house are the usual suspects: chickadees and titmice, cardinals and bluejays, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers. Finches are few and far between. Now and then I’ll look out the window and see a trio of goldfinches at the feeder. Then, later in the day, a pair of purple finches drops by. A junco hops over from the edge of the woodland and waits patiently while seven mourning doves work the seed-ladened ground under the feeders.
While in the spring you may see a pair of mourning doves sitting close together canoodling on a wire or a branch, at this time of year, they, like many other species, flock together. Some days there are only three or four here; while other days may bring in 20 or so. They feed mostly from the ground, picking and pecking through the spilled detritus. But come the colder, snowy weather, they will invade the platforms and wing away any competitors. So much for the dove of peace.
The mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, is the most common dove throughout North America. The bird has a lovely subdued plumage in colors ranging from bluish gray to pinkish brown. This dove is a little larger than a robin with a relatively small head and long, rounded tail that flashes white along the outer edges. A dark spot decorates the cheek and a spill of more dark dots are apparent across the back.
But who or what is the bird mourning? Early birders thought his ooAAH, cooo, coo, coo-ing sounded quite sad as if he were totally grief-stricken. Others thought it was reminiscent of an owl’s hoot, but no one called him the owl dove. Mourning dove became the name of choice.
FLYING TREE RATS
In “A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York” (1904), Ralph Hoffmann lists the mourning dove as a common summer resident with a footnote about the Wild Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, stating that it is nearly extinct in this area. Soon the passenger pigeon, as this species is known throughout the ornithological world, once the most abundant bird in North America, did become extinct, the last living specimen dying in 1914.
Hoffmann has no entry for the other common pigeon/dove of this area — called rock dove, rock pigeon or feral pigeon — often seen under bridges, around barns and on top of silos. These were European birds, Columba livia, brought over by the immigrants. The birds escaped from domestic, rooftop dovecotes and took to the wild probably around the turn of the 19th century. Their success is history. Most cities throughout the world now are rife with these pigeons often derogatorily referred to as “flying tree rats.”
The words pigeon or dove refer to the same birds, though the connotations are completely different. We do not ever hear of “mourning pigeons” or “feral doves.” Pigeons/doves from ancient times were symbols — depending on the cultural tradition — of love, fertility, longevity, faithfulness, of the Holy Ghost, of Christ, of purity, and, of course, of peace. It is the dove of peace, not the pigeon of peace.
Writers often refer to the kindness of doves, but the ferocity of pigeons, of doves with meek eyes, but pigeons with cold beady ones, of soiled doves, not soiled pigeons, of stool pigeons, not stool doves. Pigeons are thought to be the smartest of birds, the most versatile and the most adaptable. Carrier or homing pigeons were trained by the Ancient Greeks to transmit messages and even during World War II pigeons were used to bring vital information to and from the front.
After the French Revolution, the people insisted that all dovecotes be destroyed. The elite bred and hunted pigeons and doves, but did nothing to stop the birds ruining farmers’ crops.
Yet, rifle-slinging gunners are more likely these days to hunt mourning doves, not rock pigeons. Only nine states ban mourning dove hunting, including all of New England, New York and New Jersey. Seasons throughout the country may range from September through November, or December or January. The normal bag limit per day is seven per person.
Do these people feast on what they kill? Likely as not, it is primarily for sport, for it takes a very-skilled gunner to bring down a dove on the wing. They are quick fliers, twist and turn in flight, and soon are out of range. Fortunately, live mourning doves are no longer launched from traps for target shooting contests! Most now use clay pigeons — not clay doves.
Are these birds so abundant in field, farm and forest, that they can withstand a constant thinning of the population? Fortunately they are not colonial nesters like their long lost cousins, the passenger pigeons where hundreds were netted at a time while roosting. But neither are they prolific breeders. Mourning doves build really flimsy nests, lay only two eggs at a time and usually raise two broods during the summer.
Pigeons were once a favorite test subject of behavioral scientists. Donald Blough supposedly taught his pigeons to recognize all the letters of the alphabet. What was the next step? A pigeon spelling bee? Algebra? Other scientists have proven that not only do pigeons see many more colors than humans, but they also see in slow motion. Not sure where that science was heading.
And who first taught that pigeon in NYC to ride the subway? No need to teach these smart creatures. These birds are not seeking a short cut from Main Street, Flushing to Times Square, but are following crumbs dropped by hungry subway passengers as they rush to catch the #7-Train. As soon as the birds are finished eating, they quietly await the opening of the doors at the next stop — minding the gap, of course.
Mourning doves may not hitch rides or act like Hansel and Gretel, but they are a pleasure to watch and listen to around the house!
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